Kubo And The Two Strings caught me by surprise. I didn’t even know about it until the week of release, and it was a feature-length puppet animation? With a story set in Japan, my home country? How did I not know about this film? It was a good thing Anouck mentioned the film on our Facebook page, because it was one of those films that should be seen a movie theater.
Kubo follows a classic Hero’s Journey. Kubo is an one-eyed boy who lives in a cave with his mother on the edge of a fishing village. A storyteller, he visits the village every day to tell rousing tales of adventure. When he strikes a chord on his shamisen (three-stringed Japanese lute), pieces of paper fly out of his backpack and fold themselves into little creatures. The origami creatures reenact Kubo’s stories and villagers watch with bated breath. The stories Kubo takes from his mother, who tells them in her lucid moments. Her mind has been slowly fading ever since taking the harrowing journey through the seas to save her infant son. Be back by sundown, she warns Kubo, because her father the Moon King will find him and gauge out his other eye. His mother can tell amazing stories, but one thing she can’t remember is what Kubo’s father was like. Kubo has so many questions. She has told him that his father was a brave samurai, but she can’t remember what he was like as a person. Meanwhile, the village is busy celebrating the festival of the spirits. This is when dead ancestors come back to visit the living. To Kubo, it seems like the perfect opportunity to meet his dead father. He stays out past sundown, and of course, everything goes wrong. Thus, Kubo’s adventure begins.
The visuals in Kubo are stunning, as you can see from the trailer. The animation is so flawless that it almost looks computer generated. The use of enchanted origami as a storytelling vehicle is charming too. The costumes and settings are well researched and authentic to Japan. I love the design of the two villain sisters in particular. Dressed like vagabonds, their expressionless Noh-masks and screeching laughter are terrifying. Nothing about this film screams “generic Asia,” which is typical of too many Hollywood films. The festival of the spirits is obon, a real holiday that is like Dia de los muertos. Toro nagashi is a beautiful tradition where people release candle-lit lanterns, representing a loved one’s spirit, down a river.
Breathtaking visuals are great, but what makes Kubo special is the story. It’s fun, scary, sad, rewarding. The ending is unconventional and a bit of a surprise. And you’ll cry. Oh, you’ll cry. Kubo makes his journey with a bodyguard monkey and samurai beetle, and it’s pretty clear to the audience who these characters really are (or maybe not, so I’m not telling), but it’s still moving to watch Kubo discover who they are. The monkey is all business and very protective of Kubo, and the beetle is a fun goofball. Kubo learns about his family through his travel companions. They face many danger together. Kubo suffers what seems like an insurmountable loss, but in the end, rises to the final challenge of facing off with the Moon King. Kubo rises to the occasion to become a hero, but throughout the story, Kubo is just a boy. He isn’t placed on a pedestal of a hero. In the end, Kubo is about the power of stories we tell others, and tell ourselves.
Laika Studios, who created Kubo, also made Coraline and The Boxtrolls. I can’t wait to see what they do next!